How much has theatre changed in its depiction of and access for blindness since Crystal Clear premiered in 1982 at the Old Red Lion Theatre? Gillian Dean, who stars in the three-hander’s first major revival this month, shares her experiences as a visually impaired performer and theatregoer. Time to get booking!
White Deer Theatre’s major new revival of Crystal Clear runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 23 July to 17 August 2019, with a press night on 25 July.
Richard – a young man with diabetes – is struggling. As his health deteriorates, so too do his feelings for long-term partner Jane. He looks for comfort in the calming company of Thomasina, a poised and enigmatic blind woman. After Richard loses his own sight, however, his relationships with the two women unravel: things collapse between him and Jane, and his intense but ill-fated connection with the serene Thomasina takes a tragic turn.
PJ Stanley directs Gareth Kennerley as Richard, Rakhee Sharma as Jane and Gillian Dean, a visually impaired actor, as Thomasina. Originally devised by director Phil Young, Crystal Clear premiered at the Old Red Lion in 1982 before transferring to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre. Young went on to direct a television adaptation which aired on BBC One in 1988.
White Deer Theatre has worked closely with access consultant Amelia Cavallo, a blind performer, workshop facilitator, access consultant and academic. All performances of Crystal Clear will be accessible for visually impaired audience members, with audio description narrated live by the cast and pre-show touch tours.
Talking to… Gillian Dean
Gillian Dean trained at DeMontfort University, Leicester and graduated with a BA Honours degree in Contemporary Theatre. Before pursuing her professional acting career full-time in 2009, Gillian worked in arts management and as a freelance workshop facilitator, delivering workshops in devising and character development. Her credits include Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical (Southbank Centre and Melbourne Comedy Festival), ITV Drama’s Home Fires and BBC Radio 4 Drama’s Blind School. Gillian is severely sight impaired.
What were your first impressions reading the script for Crystal Clear?
I was particularly struck that the play features a blind character very prominently as this is not, in my experience, very common. On reading the script, I was delighted to discover that Thomasina is a complex and interesting character. Often characters with disabilities can be a bit one-dimensional so this was a great discovery. All three of the characters in Crystal Clear are intricate, and I have really enjoyed watching the other two performers’ interpretations of their characters as they were very different from the way that I had initially read them.
Tell us about your character.
Thomasina is very independent and proud of it. She is a blind woman who is determined to exist in the sighted world, which is not designed for her, with as much dignity and as confidently as she possibly can. Due to her determination, she succeeds at this. She is a social worker, which I interpret as yet more evidence that she refuses to be seen as a victim of her condition. Thomasina is a warm, witty and supportive person though she has her flaws and prejudices, as everyone does.
As a visually impaired (VI) actor, what has been your experience of the theatre industry?
I have found that the industry is really opening up to VI actors. There’s still a way to go yet, but more and more companies are exploring VI roles and also having VI actors playing non-disabled roles. Theatre can have such a huge impact on audiences so I think the more disabled actors are seen on stage as just ordinary people, the more society can accept and normalise our integration. I have had some really wonderful experiences working in theatre, when I have been made to feel respected, supported and like I can contribute and be treated exactly like everyone else. This is one of those experiences.
As a theatregoer, how would you rate theatre’s accessibility for visually impaired audiences?
I don’t live in London, so I have limited knowledge of London theatre accessibility, but the experience I do have is that it’s very variable. Some theatres have poor signage, unmarked stairs, and no programmes in alternative formats. Others are the opposite and are easily navigable.
I think the key areas theatres need to develop are communication and preparation. All VI people have unique needs. The best way to approach this situation is to ensure that all staff have had as much training as possible to allow them to effectively communicate with people. In a busy foyer environment, I can struggle to find a staff member if they are not prominent. When I speak to them, I need to be able to hear them clearly and for them not to just vaguely gesture in a direction. In terms of preparation, schematic plans and photos of the building are a very useful way for me to orientation myself with where I will need to go before I even arrive at the venue.
Crystal Clear will have the actors narrating audio description (AD) live. What do you think this adds?
I think, for both VI and non-VI audiences, the audio description will add layers of texture. We are integrating the AD so it doesn’t detract from any dialogue, override any movement or over-explain when the text and performance is providing the information. We are devising the AD together in the rehearsal process, and I’m finding this very interesting as it is making me investigate perception and intent. As I am describing the scenes my character is not in, this is making me feel completely immersed in the world of the play, which is really useful for focus.
Why should audiences book for Crystal Clear?
This play is a nuanced, intelligent and poignant investigation of the human experience. By turns, it is funny, tender, tense and painful. I think it would appeal to anyone who thinks that sounds interesting. The incorporation of audio description adds an interesting layer that will hopefully be as enjoyable for sighted audience members as it is for visually impaired.
Crystal Clear runs from 23 July to 17 August 2019 at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ, with performances Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £15.50-£17.50 (previews £12.50). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!